Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle on Songwriting for Tormented Souls

"People were saying, ‘You’re going to write songs about how much you love your son,’ and I was like two middle fingers in the air, no, I’m not."

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John Darnielle of American indie-rock band Mountain Goats performs on stage during day one of End Of The Road Festival 2010 at Larmer Tree Gardens in Tollard Royal, North Dorset, England on Sept. 10, 2010.

John Darnielle began making music as the frontman (and sole member) of the indie rock band The Mountain Goats in 1991. From the gritty four-track recordings of the band’s first tape, Going to Alaska, the group has slowly evolved over the course of 13 full-length albums and a revolving door of collaborators. Now a threesome, the band is on the cusp of releasing their highly anticipated new album, Transcendental Youth, out Oct 2 on Merge Records.

Darnielle is known for his book-smart lyrics, but for him, songwriting is more about spontaneous inspiration than planned storytelling. “When I’m writing a song I’m just making stuff up as I go along. I’m just [* snap *],” Darnielle says. “Sometimes I’ll write without the guitar or the piano, but most of the time I’ll be playing and just improvising some words. And when I get something that sounds good, a line with a story in it, I’ll try and tease it out and figure out where the story is going. But I don’t sit down and say I’m going to write a song about this or that. They are never mapped out.”

This revelation may come as a surprise to fans who appreciate Darnielle’s ability to tell completely realized tales with fully fleshed out characters all in four minutes or less. His lyrics draw comparisons to Neil Young, although he would undoubtedly prefer Mary Chapin Carpenter (“I worship the ground she walks on.”) and the tracks sound like short stories more than toe-tapping anthems. That isn’t to say that the Mountain Goats don’t have dance-along beats, because they do, it’s just that the lyrics are far from typical deep-feeling rock n’ roll motifs. Take “The Diaz Brothers,” from their forthcoming album.It’s a pounding piano-driven, head-bobbing number, written for two drug-dealing brothers briefly mentioned in Scarface with mesmerizing lyrics like “Beam of a flashlight/All night in the woods/Hunt us like dogs/And then string us up for good”.

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Over the years, Darnielle’s songs have covered the gamut of questionable personalities, including cult joiners, debt collectors, alcoholics, inmates and lonely souls passing through. The only songs he admits are completely confessional are those on The Sunset Tree, an album that chronicles his experiences with his abusive stepfather. But while he admits that “there’s a bit of yourself in every song you write,” adding, “I know these situations, but I don’t live them.” On Transcendental Youth Darnielle delves deep into the darkness again, dubbing this album “The Satan Album” in early interviews. “The first song I wrote [for the album] was ‘Until I Am Whole’ and that just came out spontaneously out of nowhere. I was in a good mood, but something really dark came out. I was in a hotel room on tour with my tour manager and producer Brandon Eggleston. I played it for him, and when I was done he said, ‘That’s one of the best songs you’ve written in a very long time.’ I felt the same.”

Darnielle wrote the song while in the middle of a tour for 2011’s All Eternals Deck and after parsing out the meaning behind it (“It’s about a person you know who is struggling with the sort of depression that prevents you from taking care of yourself. And I thought well that’s something I have direct experience of.”), Darnielle put the song on hold. Then, troubled chanteuse Amy Winehouse passed away and it inspired Darnielle to re-visit the song’s subject matter. “When Amy Winehouse died, I wrote the first ‘Spent Gladiator’. That’s what people don’t say when drug addicts die—that they are mentally ill, that it is a disease. I felt really sad and I thought about all the other Amy Winehouses in the world who aren’t famous, whose deaths go uncelebrated. Then I was sort of off to the races thinking—writing about people who were suffering with various psychic ills.”

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The songs in the new album touch on death, downward spirals and depression, proving that being a parent to a nearly one-year-old son hasn’t slowed down or softened Darnielle’s despondent side. “I wrote ‘Lakeside View Apartment Suites’ with Roman in my arms. He was about a month old. I was playing left-handed and finally handed him over. On the demo of it you can hear him crying in the next room.” The song has lyrics that are bleak, even by Mountain Goats’ standards: “And just before I leave/I throw up in the sink / One whole life recorded / In disappearing ink.”

In some ways, the album’s gloomy undercurrents are due to Darnielle’s admitted cantankerousness. While he writes his songs spontaneously, he adamantly refuses to cave into the happy glow that infuses a lot of post-partum rock albums penned after singers become parents. “Part of it is just that I’m ornery. A lot of singer-songwriters have a baby then suddenly they start singing about all the promise of life and all that, a subject they have never once before addressed or even found remotely interesting,” Darnielle explained, laughingly. “This is sort of like a guy who has just lost his virginity and is suddenly writing the sex album. No, you’re not ready to write that record yet.” he added. “A new parenting album is something I really had an opposition to making and people of course were saying [speaking in a gruff voice] ‘You’re going to write songs about how much you love your son,’ and I was like two middle fingers in the air, no, I’m not.”

Despite his personal happiness, Darnielle claims he didn’t have to struggle to get in touch with the tormented souls he pours into his songs. “It’s easy, because when you have a newborn baby you are steeped in this incredibly positive feeling all day. It’s just a really amazing feeling. Then when you sit down to write, if the main muse you’ve been courting for 20 years is this dark muse and that muse hasn’t been given any rein through out the day, it just flows freely during that hour that you’re away from the baby.” To prove his point he explains that “Harlem Roulette,” one of the lyrically grimmest songs on the album with a chorus that repeats “The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again,” was written during a few stolen moments while his newborn son and wife napped upstairs.

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Longtime Mountain Goats fans may not be surprised by the album’s grim subject matter, but what they may find new is the addition of a full horn section to the band’s usually sparse sound. While the band has occasionally added pianos, violins and even a spattering of horns to their tracks, the horn section and arrangements that were carefully curated by Matthew E. White (whose debut album Big Inner is well worth a listen) add an incredible textural depth to the Mountain Goats’ sound, particularly noticeable on the album’s title track “Transcendental Youth.” To add the horns, Darnielle had to break with tradition. “Normally the only people who hear my demos are Peter [Hughes, bass player] and Jon [Wurster, drummer], but I sent demos to Matt along with some song ideas. That means is that by the time we’re in the studio, we’ve already talked about the songs a lot. Some of our songs—like on Heretic Pride [the band’s 2008 album]—have never been played together before we all showed up in the studio one day. This one had a battle plan drawn.”

The planning worked. The album ranks among The Mountain Goats’ best, a hard feat in a career that has spanned two decades. But don’t get too attached to the horns. From their inception, The Mountain Goats have always been evolving. “Will future albums have horns? Who knows. I don’t plan like that,” Darnielle explained. “I was talking on stage the another night about how much I liked going to see these wrestlers I used to see in the ’70s. I have one song about a wrestler and I thought I could write 11 more and call the album ‘Wrestlers’ and have these kind of portrait songs. But when I do that I still wouldn’t be able to outline it or plan it. There’s something about writing a song that has to be instinctual or reflexive for me for it to work. It has to come from some sort of gut or spontaneous place.”

Listen to Mountain Goats “Cry For Judas” off of Transcendental Youth out October 2nd on Merge Records:
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